At the English estate of Downton in the south of England, the Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley wakes to the news of a sunken Titanic. Then he receives a telegram saying both his heirs, including his daughter Mary’s fiance, went down with the ship. Lord Crawley and his family must scramble to find another heir, who must be male per English tradition, and perhaps have Mary marry him to keep the estate in the family. Meanwhile, downstairs, the servants have their own opinions over the drama. Or they would if Lord Crawley had not hired a wounded veteran as his personal valet.
Downton Abbey is a period drama set in the countryside of England in the 1910s onward into the 1920s. It is an ensemble cast featuring the inhabitants of the estate at Downton. Upstairs, the Earl of Grantham has three daughters and an American wife. Much of the drama comes from Mary’s indignity as being someone to marry off as well as the cattiness between her and her sisters. Downstairs, the slightly more interesting part, we see how the servants get on. Naturally, they have their opinions of the goings on upstairs, but they must also contend with maintaining the house when they have such obstacles as a wounded valet or a maid taking typing classes to become a secretary.
I have heard mixed reviews of Downton Abbey as a show. Then again, my more intellectual friends enjoyed it until the later seasons (not surprising, really). And yet select members of my family love it to death. Select members of my family means my mother and my brother’s long-term girlfriend. (They have bonded over this show, and it is adorable or watch from the sidelines). I have convinced one of my friends to add it to her To-Watch list, and I cannot wait for her to start.
I, myself, greatly enjoy Downton Abbey. I like the period setting and I like the accents and the costumes, but I especially like the drama. It all comes together to create a show that is . . . well, perhaps “engaging” wouldn’t be the right word. I suppose “addicting” would be better. There is the relationship between Mary and Matthew, the unwilling heir of Downton. There is Sybil’s support in helping Gwen the lady’s maid find a job elsewhere. And there is Thomas and O’Brien, a friendship that can cause trouble even in the most peaceful of times.
My favorite character is the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith. Set in her traditionalist ways, the Dowager Countess butts heads with Mrs. Crawley, mother to the new heir and a progressive in her own right. The Dowager Countess is an utter delight and gets all the good lines. For example:
Gentleman: Farewell, Lady Violet. I don’t believe we will ever meet again.
Dowager Countess: Do you promise?
She has better ones that but that one sticks out. Her banter with Mrs. Crawley is the best ever.
Mary will always have my support. Sensible Mary with her rebellious attitude without the rebellion and the great scandal that has the potential to defile her name. Though, she is involved in the best death anyone can ever have, all things considered. My empathy goes to Edith, the second daughter, whose spiteful attitude comes from being overlooked her entire childhood, poor girl. On principle, I like Sybil and her feminist views, though she is not called feminist in that time period.
This is all to say the characters make the show for me. There is not much of a plot, but there doesn’t have to be when you get the characters right. Their own motivations grate against each other to create enough conflict to last a season or five. And did I mention everyone is very pretty?
This is not to say I have my issues with the show. There are unclear time-jumps that I believe should be noted with more than a brief textual mention of the month and year at the beginning of each episode. Mind you, this is a mention I always miss for two reasons: I do not know to look for it and when I do, I miss it because I am buttering my scone. Secondly, the antagonists, or who the plot would call antagonists, need more motivation to do what they do. O’Brien, for instance, would feel more well-rounded in the first season if she had motivation to assist Thomas in his ambitious dealings. And then there is the matter of the first Mrs. Bates who creates chaos just to create chaos. I do not understand her motivation one bit. Narratively, she needs a lot of work or Mr. Bates needs to step down from a pedestal.
Nothing against Mr. Bates, though. He’s one of my favorite servants alongside Daisy and Anna.
My criticisms do not detract from the entertainment of the show. In fact, if there were not any antagonistic characters in the first season, the whole thing would be kind of boring. What we have instead is a finely crafted period drama that broke into the mainstream. I am happy for its success, but I am happier than I have two and a half more season to watch until I am caught up. I suspect I will whine with the rest of you once I finish Season 5, perhaps sometime in April.
No spoilers, please, I already know of one. I don’t know details but I do hope its murder. (gasp!)
And now, I shall leave you, but not before imparting this final gift.